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Beyond Babel: Pentecost and mission.

So embedded in Western lore is the subject of Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder's famous painting featured below that we recognize it at once as the Tower of Babel, evoking the account in Genesis 11:1-9 of how human accord was divinely mutated into linguistic pandemonium and cultural fragmentation. Its New Testament counterpart is the story of Pentecost, found in Acts 2, the inauguration at last of God's promised reversal of the Babel effect. Far from favoring the monotonous standardization of cultures and languages being wrought by the juggernaut of globalization, God demonstrated through Pentecost that the confusion of intrahuman discourse was not to be mitigated through some global monolingual scheme but through God's revelation of himself in the mother tongue of every tribe and nation. It is not surprising, then, that two thousand years after the event marking the Holy Spirit's dramatic initiation of the church there should be the proliferation of translations highlighted in Harriet Hill's superb update on the current and projected state of mother-tongue Bible translations.

In her lead essay Edith Blumhofer tells how--in the wake of Azusa Street and similar, concurrent revivals one hundred years ago--early American Pentecostals were convinced that the gift of tongues was God's way of enabling them to preach the Gospel in the mother tongues of peoples all over the world, without the time-consuming labor of actually learning another language. The disappointing reality that Holy Spirit-inspired zeal for missions did not mean instant facility in an unknown language soon became embarrassingly evident. But a deeper truth, more consonant with 1,900 years of Christian history, was reaffirmed: when it comes to the relationship between spiritual gifts and missionary activity, the power from on high is less about spectacle and more about personal faithfulness. Since it was clearly God's intention that all peoples should hear the Gospel, each in his and her own language, the tough work of language learning and translation must be integral to any authentically Christian mission.

Supported by short articles by Grant McClung, Douglas Petersen, and J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, and reinforced by Todd Johnson's centenary survey of three waves of Christian renewal since the Azusa Street revival of 1906, Blumhofer further shows that the contemporary renewal movements usually referred to as Pentecostalism continue to contribute in extraordinary ways to the life and character of the church and of churches around the world, whatever the confessional or denominational bent.

As Harry Boer convincingly argued years ago in his classic Pentecost and Missions (1961), and as the articles in this issue of the IBMR attest, Pentecost is not really about spectacular signs and wonders, exorcisms, prophecies, or material prosperity. It is about an encounter with the creator God in Christ that is so vivid, so intensely personal, and so life-changing that those who experience it find it impossible to keep quiet about what they have seen and heard (Acts 4:20). It is about irresistible divine empowerment to mitigate Babel's legacy with the Good News of God's love for all peoples, especially the disenfranchised of this world. Although the poor have no meaningful part in the grand schemes of social ideologues and politicians, in God's salvation drama, the kingdom of heaven is theirs, and the earth is their inheritance (Matt. 5:3, 5). Pentecost is about God's insistence on communicating this Good News in the language most appropriate for intimate discourse, one's mother tongue. The Pentecostal movement sweeping our contemporary world is not about Azusa Street but about Jerusalem.

Little wonder, then, that in the global South, where nearly 60 percent of all Christians live, we see the most evidence of the signs of renewal most frequently associated with Pentecost. Organizations such as the United Bible Societies and Wycliffe Bible Translators International, engaged in the rendition and dissemination of mother-tongue Christian Scriptures, are quintessential expressions of Pentecost's impulse. Philip Jenkins in his article reminds us that the book now waved aside in the old heartlands of Christendom as nothing more than a confusing collage of tribal myths, contradictory cliches, folk wisdom, and sectarian regulations is increasingly recognized in the global South as a fresh, profoundly credible, and transforming guide for life--proclaiming, in fact, the very power of God unto salvation. This issue of the IBMR is a brief chronicle of that experience.

Front cover: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel, 1563, oil on oak panel, 114 x 155 cm; courtesy of Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
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Publication:International Bulletin of Missionary Research
Geographic Code:4EUNE
Date:Apr 1, 2006
Previous Article:Book notes.
Next Article:Revisiting Azusa Street: a centennial retrospect.

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